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Spain to boost Afghanistan force

By CNN Madrid Bureau Chief Al Goodman

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The Spanish force in Afghanistan will rise from 137 to more than 1,000.
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Spain
Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero
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Hamid Karzai

MADRID, Spain (CNN) -- Spain's cabinet has agreed to send nearly 900 more troops to Afghanistan, boosting its current small contingent there to more than 1,000 ahead of the country's elections.

The proposed deployment, announced publicly Thursday by Defense Minister Jose Bono, was approved at the weekly cabinet meeting Friday.

It will now be sent to parliament, where the ruling Socialists and their smaller party allies constitute a majority.

Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega announced the cabinet approval at a nationally-televised news conference after the meeting.

The latest move comes after Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero withdrew 1,300 peacekeepers from Iraq during the spring, a move that displeased the Bush administration.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai asked NATO allies earlier this week to send more troops to ensure safe elections, which have been scheduled for September.

Spain currently has 137 troops on the ground in Afghanistan, and 332 others in support roles for the Afghan theater, which include troops aboard a frigate in the Indian Ocean and others at a European command center in Strasbourg, France, said a Ministry of Defense statement sent to CNN on Friday.

The cabinet on Friday approved the deployment of an additional 393 troops to Afghanistan in the near term -- a contingent that would include four helicopters, two planes and a medical team to set up a 20 to 50-bed field hospital.

Later, up to 500 troops from a light infantry battalion would be sent there for up to 90 days to support the electoral process.

Some of those currently in Afghanistan would be withdrawn, and the maximum number of Spanish troops in Afghanistan at any time would be 1,040, the Defense Ministry statement said.

Bono said the cost of the troop increase would be $65 million (54 million euros).

While putting more troops on the ground in Afghanistan, Spain also would pull back 217 troops serving on a frigate in the Indian Ocean as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.

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Spanish troops were withdrawn from Iraq after the Madrid bombings.

Zapatero won an upset victory last March 14 over the conservative Popular Party, whose Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, had been a staunch ally of President Bush in the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Aznar had put 1,300 troops in Iraq despite overwhelming Spanish opposition to the war, as measured by opinion polls. Zapatero pledged during his campaign to withdraw those troops.

The Spanish elections, in which Zapatero ran against Aznar's successor, came just three days after the Madrid train bombings on March 11 -- attacks blamed on Islamic terrorists.

Analysts say the train bombings changed the expected outcome of the election.

Zapatero has repeatedly insisted, including in a recent interview with CNN, that in following through on the Iraq troop pullout, he was not giving in to terrorists, who had threatened Spain for its participation in the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.

The Iraq troop pullout, announced in April, was completed in late May.

The Spanish cabinet on Friday also agreed to put a small number of troops in Haiti, but Deputy Prime Minister Fernandez de la Vega said the number has not yet been determined.

The defense minister had earlier mentioned the possibility of sending 110 paramilitary Civil Guards to Haiti.


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